Charity Update

By Sean Carroll | July 28, 2011 8:52 am

It’s been a while, and I’ve been meaning to provide an update on our little charity suggestion bleg. If you’ll recall, I wanted to take my ill-gotten gains from the 3 Quarks Daily Prize and send them to a worthy charity, but rather than just defaulting to my usual favorites I sought from new wisdom from the collective intelligence out there.

The bad news — in some sense — is that there are far too many truly worthy causes. Apparently we have a way to go before achieving a utopian condition throughout all the countries of Earth. Who knew?

Nevertheless I was happy to learn about GiveWell, an organization whose purpose it to figure out what kinds of charitable donations actually have the greatest impact. (It was advocated by Ian, Edgar, and Rationalist.) It’s obvious that different types of giving can have disparate impacts, but it’s very hard to figure out what approach is most effective, and having an organization dedicated to doing the hard work of figuring that out is invaluable.

Just to get an idea of what we’re talking about: to rate the relative effectiveness of different programs, GiveWell uses a metric called Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALY). It’s a well-known (in these circles) number, also used by the World Health Organization and others. The idea is to make some attempt — as hard as this may be from a rigorous philosophical perspective — to boil different kinds of good deeds to a single number. Maybe you actually increase someone’s lifespan, or maybe you prevent blindness — DALY boils it all down to one quantity.

And what you then find is — an extraordinary range of different values for different forms of charity. At the extreme end, consider supporting improved water sanitation to prevent diarrhea, which certainly sounds like a good idea to me. That gets you $4,185/DALY, so it takes about four grand to do the equivalent of giving someone an extra year of life. Compare this to deworming programs, which come in at $3/DALY. In this metric, in other words, deworming is about a thousand times more cost-effective than water sanitation. Obviously this is a crude measure, but it gives some idea of the range of possible outcomes.

When it comes to messy human problems, I don’t actually valorize “metrics” and “data” above all else; sometimes things work but it’s hard to quantify how much good they are actually doing. Nevertheless, in a situation of relative ignorance it’s really wonderful to have an organization trying to work out these numbers the best they can. My favorite part of the GiveWell website was the page labeled Shortcomings — not other people’s shortcomings, but their own shortcomings. They want to be as upfront and transparent as possible about their mistakes, and strive to do better. Yay!

After all that, I didn’t actually give the donation to GiveWell itself. Rather, I just followed their advice and gave to their highest-ranked charity: Village Reach, an organization that works to improve access to healthcare in remote and underserved areas in Africa and elsewhere. (Immunization programs, in general, are extremely cost-effective ways of improving health in poor communities.) It’s a relatively new, still quite small program, but with impressive effectiveness. I was very happy to donate, and certainly will continue to do so.

Which doesn’t mean that there still aren’t many other great choices. Thanks to everyone for chipping in with suggestions.

  • Viper

    Sean, what do you think of this talk?

  • Sean the Mystic

    The best form of charity is anti-charity, such as scientific Eugenics, transhumanism and increased investment in the smartest and most creative elements of humanity. There is no rational reason to subsidize the populations of the poorest and weakest humans; this is producing an unstable, dysgenic world in which the least intelligent and productive are outbreeding and threatening the civilizations of the productive.

    The fact of the matter is that liberalism and charity are the enemies of progress and evolution because they strip the intelligent of their advantages. If 75 IQ thugs can so easily outbreed the intelligent, it is not difficult to see that we are headed for idiocracy and global collapse. To avoid this, the best and the brightest simply must abandon Judeo-Christian thinking and be somewhat ruthless in building the Nietzschean, cosmic civilization that we are capable of. I see this as the great work of the 21st century: the breeding of better humans, and the creation of an aggressive form of modernity that can beat back the dysgenic tide of religious fecundity. This may sound rather sinister to many of you, but it is entirely rational and scientific and certainly seems preferable to the alternative.

    Why are intelligent people so liberal and tolerant of the stupid? It must be because you have allowed your minds to be colonized by Judeo-Christian values, because I see nothing in science or nature that supports it. I challenge the bright people of this blog to liberate themselves from this bankrupt ideology and think bigger, because the fate of the entire human race may depend on whether the smartest among us act boldly to engineer a better future in this century or allow civilization to be destroyed by the regressive, suicidal ideologies of Judeo-Christianity and liberalism.

    “Man needs what is most evil in him for what is best in him.”
    “Naked have I seen both of them, the greatest and the smallest man: All-too-similar are they still to each other.”
    –Friedrich Nietzsche

  • Phil

    Sean the Mystic,

    Are you on crack? According to your rational, the best thing to do would be to kill poor, weak, unintelligent people, people who are suffering from genetic disorders.

    No, you’re not on crack. You’re a Nazi.

  • Michael Johnson

    Dear Phil,

    I know they’re very very hungry, but please do not feed the trolls. That would be altruism, and it would lead to a black people or something. So don’t.

    To the moral Sean (the OP), I missed your original post asking for charitable recommendations, but I’m a philosophy grad student at a hotbed of utilitarians, and they’re quite rightly cracked out on GiveWell. I highly recommend Peter Singer’s books, especially “The Life You Can Save”.

    Please also check out the organization “Giving What We Can”, and especially its recommended charities page (easily accessible from its website, which itself is easily accessible via google).


  • Sean the Mystic

    Phil, I’ll assume your question was a rhetorical one and ignore it. I didn’t say anyone should be killed, though certainly I am in favor of discouraging reproduction among certain populations. I prefer to focus resources on making the strong even stronger rather than worrying about the fate of the weak. This is how you transition from man to superman, which is the natural goal of a progressive, technological civilization.

    I believe in using every weapon at my disposal, particularly my intellect, to succeed in the evolutionary struggle. If you want to disarm yourself with liberalism that is your business, except where it impacts me in the form of dysgenic charity. This is what I oppose, and I appeal to all scientists who understand what we’re facing on this planet to join me in rejecting the insanity of Judeo-Christian charity in a world that is approaching Malthusian limits.

    I understand that this kind of thinking elicits knee-jerk reactions in many people, who apparently think calling someone a “troll” or a “Nazi” constitutes a winning argument. But I can’t really think this small. I see a whole universe awaiting us and a civilization that is being hobbled by a wretched, timid ideology and which is in grave danger of failing. So I’m calling for an intellectual revolution among the elite, asking them to be bold, to embrace Nietzschean values and to invest even more in those humans who have something to offer. In our technologically advancing civilization, that is a small and ever-shrinking fraction of the population — a fraction which can be increased either by regressing as a civilization or progressing as a species. I choose progress.

  • DaveH

    Fortunately, CV’s Sean doesn’t mistake political inequality for inherent weakness.

    Village Reach seems like an excellent charity to give to, Sean.

  • Rationalist

    @Sean the Mystic:

    Though I agree with some things you say, it is unfortunate that you weaken your message with talk of Eugenics and anti-charity. You will only hurt the causes you speak for by using this language. To most people, “Eugenics” simply means “I am a Nazi”, I would suggest you abandon the word. Even if eugenics is a good idea, it has become so memetically polluted that mere mention of it is a way to instantly lose a debate.

    Investment in the activities of the best and brightest humans can happen at the same time as safeguarding the basic human rights of those who are not so fortunate.

    Regarding dysgenics, I think that there is a serious issue to be tackled. I don’t think that we should stand by idly in the face of dysgenic selective pressures, but on the other hand the issue should be broached carefully and sensitively. For example, we could tackle dysgenic selection using gene therapy rather than “killing the weak”. Gene therapy could improve the quality of everybody’s genetic code without anyone having to die, and without having to wait hundreds of years as you would with eugenics.

    Also Nietzsche was actually insane, so I would not base my life-philosophy on him. Try Nick Bostrom instead.

  • FmsRse12

    @ Sean the Mystic

    “Why are intelligent people so liberal and tolerant of the stupid? It must be because you have allowed your minds to be colonized by Judeo-Christian values, because I see nothing in science or nature that supports it.”

    where did you find other intelligent beings like us not supporting the stupid???…..

  • Ian

    Glad you enjoyed the tip to GiveWell. And glad Michael Johnson mentioned Peter Singer’s “The Life You Can Save”, the book where I first heard about GiveWell. I was then reintroduced to the organization when the founder was interviewed on the Rationally Speaking podcast with Massimo Pigliucci.

  • Gave at the Office

    I already gave to my favorite charity, the IRS, and do it every 2 weeks


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


See More

Collapse bottom bar